Stories are almost as old as humanity itself, and their role in history has always been elemental. Recently they have been artfully exploited by everyone from big Hollywood studios, multi-national advertising companies, and even small-scale entrepreneurs building their own brand. When it comes to corporate learning, stories have been present both in classroom sessions and e-learning modules for a long time.
Highly effective in being remembered for themselves, stories didn’t always help with knowledge transfer. Doug Stevenson’s “Story Theatre Method”, based on years of experience in the film-making industry, provides a framework for a more applied approach to storytelling.
I have already talked about the importance of being strategic when choosing the stories to tell and making learning moments vivid in the audience’s mind.
Now let’s explore a few best practices of using storytelling in business training programs that help instructors gain the audience’s attention and convey a desired message that they can then act upon, based upon Stevenson’s Theatre Story Method:
Find a Yoda
The iconic Jedi Grand Master with his big eyes and his green complexion is the epitome of strangely phrased imparted wisdom. That’s why the creator of the Theatre Method chose him to illustrate the importance of such a character – the one who delivers the punch line or the memorable phrase that will make all the elements of the experience fall into place.
It can’t be the facilitator himself because, as I have mentioned in the previous article, for a story to be worth learning from, it needs to be one of “failures, mistakes and small disasters”. So, the trainer may be the hero but not the Yoda.
I was a participant in a well-being seminar, and throughout the session, the picture of an actor that seemed familiar, but neither of my fellow participants could quite place was stuck to the front wall. The most important point of that course was that each person was first and foremost responsible for their own well-being. The story was a familiar one, having to do with stress, multi-tasking, and the constant complaint that days are too short. Eventually, we learned that the poster depicted Agent Cooper from the nineties show “Twin Peaks”. He had a rule about giving oneself a present every day. I remember this ten years later, so I’d say he was an excellent choice for a Yoda.
Follow the 9 steps of story structure
Improvisation is always a welcome ability, but preparation is much more desirable when telling a story with a point. The steps should be followed in order and to the last one for optimal results:
- A story begins with a specific setting of time and place. “It was a dark and stormy night, and rain rattled on the rooftop” is often mocked as the cliché opening to romantic fiction, but it is an excellent example of establishing the when (at night) and where (inside, or at least in a place with a roof);
- Next, the characters need introductions – in learning stories, it is usually the storyteller and at least one more to help with the unfolding and conclusion;
- The third step is the beginning of the journey – generally a statement of how things should have been, what the initial expectations were;
- Then comes the obstacle, and this is aimed at creating an emotional hook for the audience who is by now familiar with how the tale ought to have unfolded and can feel the distress of the unexpected change;
- The natural continuation is the overcoming of the obstacle, and this usually happens with the help of a wiser or simply more inspired person (the Yoda);
- Making the point is essential because educational stories are supposed to state the take-away, not expect people to have epiphanies on their own;
- Drawing the audience into the story is the next step. This is achieved by asking questions like “how about you?” or “did anything similar ever happen to you?”. If the story was chosen strategically to fit the audience, they would surely relate;
- Since repetition is known to be the mother of learning, the last step is re-stating the point. Now that the listeners have also realized how the experience could have just as well been theirs, it will hit home even better.
The ending has to be memorable
In his book, Doug Stevenson calls this “sticking the landing with the phrase that pays”. In other words, having a really memorable sentence, a witty pun, or a reference to something that is very popular at that point will ensure that the audience truly leaves with both a tale they remember and a relevant take-away.
Nice stories that don’t have a point can be entertaining but of no value when it comes to learning. An ending catch-phrase should be as easy to remember as the notorious “winter is coming”, “just do it!” or the more recent “flatten the curve”. These are all ‘catchy’ because of the epic or emotional story behind them.
Another way to go is by using language in a creative way. My personal example is of a negotiation story I used to tell in my courses that ended with “go for the win-win way”.
Capturing and holding people’s attention is difficult. Conveying a message that can be remembered and subsequently replicated, even more so. The Theatre Story Method of using storytelling in business training offers an excellent framework for achieving both desiderates while making the trainer’s job easier, and the attendees’ experience significantly more pleasant.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.